Review: Anish Kapoor

*Anish Kapoor: Marsyas, 2002

Tate Modern, London: Unilever Series

Until April 2003


There is a Greek myth that narrates the fall from grace of the satyr Marsyas, whose hubris invites the punishment of the god Apollo. Marsyas is taking a walk along a bucolic wooded path when he happens upon a discarded flute. His curiosity ignited, he lifts the flute to his lips, but before he has gathered breath to play the flute produces music of its own accord. This music is so exquisite that every audience Marsyas entertains proclaims that his sonorous inventions greatly exceed any music arranged by the Gods. Unwisely, Marsyas does not contradict these claims. The god Apollo gets wind of this and challenges him to a musical competition. Apparently Marsyas agrees to this challenge without reading the fine-print, for Apollo demands that he play his flute upside down at once as singing and doing a jig. The magic flute will not comply with all these requirements. The punishment for Marsyas’s display of hubris? He will be flayed alive and his skin will be stretched out and pinned to a tree.

Marsyas is the name with which Anish Kapoor has christened the great beast which has taken up residence in the Turbine hall at the Tate Modern museum in London. This ambitious installation is the rubicund skin of Marsyas rejuvenated and stretched over one hundred and fifty metres long and thirty metres tall. It is also his flute, or at least a marvelous horn-like, seemingly musical instrument. The grandeur of the Turbine hall, often compared to the nave of a cathedral, is silenced by the magnificence of Kapoor’s installation. The biomorphic convolutions of Marsyas express the pulsing blood hue of a vital internal organ. It is difficult to imagine now how the Turbine hall could ever be asked forego the insistence of this visceral augmentation.

Marsyas is a structure that has been much remarked upon, and not only for its monumental scale. At either end of the Turbine hall, and suspended over the bridge that punctures its volume, there are arranged three enormous steel rings. The outer rings are lodged vertically and expected to do most of the heavy work required to keep this magnificent biomorphic or musical organ stabilized. Regardless of their structural importance, they seem to float. The reflective quality of the polished concrete floor of the hall lends itself to this illusion, wherein the very materiality of the existing volume, together with Kapoor’s intervention is brought into question. Relying on the tensile strength of Marsyas’s flayed skin, the central ring is suspended horizontally over the bridge, where we are allowed to peer upwards into the belly of the beast. Between these three structural elements the deep red PVC skin is stretched as a reverberatory membrane.

Images in the exhibition catalogue show Marsyas in the process of being constructed. A team of workers were put to the task for three weeks, day and night. The PVC skin, which was quite literally pulled out of a box proportionally insignificant when compared with the final, overwhelming proportions of the completed sculpture, can be seen draped in a blood red liquid spill across the floor of the gallery during construction. The entire enterprise would have been made impossible without the assistance of the engineers, Arup Europe, and what one begins to see unfold is a truly collaborative venture.

The artist, who had begun to explore the volume of the Turbine hall before the Tate museum had been completed, is said to have wanted to inspire fear, to unnerve his audience. Kapoor and his collaborators have created something too wondrous for this. Certainly one suffers a sense of spatial consternation, much as one might when tracing the infinite path of a möbius strip. But it is not a sense of unease that is aroused by Marsyas so much as awe, as though one has arrived at an apprehension of the sublime. The shifting translucency of the skin in response to the light, the red that likewise flares across different shades of coagulation, produce the strong feeling that the entire form is breathing, even humming gently. There is also the persistent sensation of being swallowed or engulfed by Marsyas’s three orifices. Oral, aural, olfactory, anal, or sexual, take your pick, Marsyas is arranged as that vital organ which collects, digests, as it produces in turn its many effects.

The curator, Donna de Salvo, has been cited proclaiming “it will undoubtably come to be seen as one of the most significant sculptures of this century.” It is tempting to read into such remarks evidence of the hubris that brought the satyr Marsyas to his unhappy end. But with the disappearance of the gods, who might it be that Kapoor wishes to challenge? Just recently a friend told of his belated visit to see Marsyas, but the skin had already been folded away, leaving behind only two ineffable and huge dark steel rings, those to be found at either end of the now emptied out hall. What lair has the beast gone in search of next and is it possible to imagine another home that would be so well suited to its form?